Here's What I Say to My Fellow Black, Gay Men
Today is National Coming Out Day, an awareness day established to celebrate the lives and experiences of members of the LGBT community living out and proud. The liberal and gay communities are celebrating, but in the midst of the celebration at least one voice is missing, a voice that is often forgotten in the gay rights movement. It is my voice, the voice of a gay black male. As the nation continues to hear the echoes of recent Supreme Court decisions, legislative victories, and a president’s evolution on same-sex marriage, now is an opportune moment to lend my voice. As with my previous essay on the black condition, addressing the dilemma of the successful, black male, I will begin this essay with some important caveats.
First, this essay is based on my lived experience, the experiences of other black gay men that I know well, and factual information. Nevertheless, any opinions that are expressed should be viewed as my own and not reflective of the entire black gay community. Like every community, the black gay community is not monolithic, but as diverse in opinion and experience as any other community.
Next, this essay is not an indictment of any particular group, organization, or institution, although I do understand that certain parts may read as such. I hope that instead of a defensive posture, everyone who reads this essay will take a moment to really hear what I am trying to communicate. My thoughts on this topic are deeply personal, and I am choosing to share them as a means of opening an important dialogue with the black gay community, the black community at-large, the gay-rights movement, and the entire nation.
Furthermore, this essay should in no way be read as a generally applicable minority perspective. The experiences of black lesbians and LGBT members of every racial minority are topics that I am wholly unsuited to address, and so I implore members of those communities to offer their own perspectives as we broaden the conversation.
Finally, I feel that it is necessary to explain why I am writing this essay, and why now in particular. The short answer is, there is plenty to be said. The longer answer, however, springs from a plethora of conversations that I have had within and outside of the communities with which I identify, a period of reflection subsequent to celebrating my third year “out of the closet,” and the reality that there are too many young, black gay men in the United States who feel completely lost in the societal web of their existence. With all of that said, let’s get to work.
The experience of being a black gay male in the United States is, for me, best summarized as constantly standing in a crowded room and shouting “ME, TOO,” at the top of my lungs hoping that someone, somewhere hears me. We are both the young behavior problems in the public school classroom and the gentleman scholar. We are the strong and silent type, the effeminate and flamboyant type, and everything in between. We are outcasts and insiders. We exist in the group of black men that society views as its biggest problem, and in the group of black men that society views as the hope of a people. We exist in the world that everyone else lives in, and we exist in our own little world. We speak the same languages as other communities, and we speak our own language. Yet, for all that we are, we are also silenced, forgotten, and forever attempting to have a little spotlight shined on us so that our story too can be told. We are constantly attempting to be both a part of all of our identities and communities, and asking for someone to notice, perhaps even celebrate, our differences.
So, then, who is to blame for our condition? There is plenty to go around, but I will focus on three in this essay: 1. the black community, especially the black church, 2. the gay community, and 3. ourselves. (Note: This is not a ranked list, and I am not attempting to place more or less blame based on where a group is discussed in the essay. In my eyes, the blame is equally shared).
The Black Community
It has been said that the worst thing you can be in the black community is not a thug, or a deadbeat dad, or a womanizer, but a black gay man. I must admit that I share the sentiment of those that have expressed this idea before me. It is as if the black community defines being a man solely on the basis of a man’s sexual attraction to women. Author of Their Own Receive Them Not and openly gay clergyman Horace Griffin attributes some of the black community’s aversion to same-sex relationships to what he views as the black community’s pursuit of sexual purity. According to Griffin, the over-sexualization and exploitation of black bodies during and after slavery caused the black community to fight these perceptions by seeking sexual purity. This image-seeking makes it difficult for the community at large to have serious conversations about sex as it actually occurs in our community (i.e. between teens, unmarried persons, and same-sex couples), instead of the heterosexual, marital sex the community wants to see as the norm. These ideals and challenges are organized by, expressed by, and integrated into the community through the black church.
Now, I want to be clear that I know well enough that the black church is not a monolithic institution, and it too is as diverse as the community at large. So when I use the term "black church" here I am referring generally to churches that are primarily composed of black patrons, led by black pastors, and ascribe to the Baptist, Methodist, Church of God in Christ, or Pentecostal conventions. I was born and raised in a black Baptist church. At the age of 16, I was licensed into ministry. From that age until now, I have delivered well over 150 sermons at various churches. On December 31 of this past year, I officially resigned from ministry and my home church over theological differences related to my sexuality. I am offering this insight into my personal story to note that I am not attempting to harp on an institution that I know nothing about, but to point out I am discussing an institution that I know intimately well, and that I care deeply about.
For the purposes of our discussion, the black church can be broken into three categories: 1. churches that reject homosexuality, 2. churches that tolerate homosexuality, and 3. churches that celebrate homosexuality.
Most black churches that I have attended, and am aware of, fit into the first category. These churches, typically relying on a literal translation of Biblical texts, reject and disavow homosexuality. While I will leave the Biblical fight to people like Matthew Vines, who have taken up the mantel to reform the Christian church’s teachings on homosexuality, I want to focus on how these churches treat their black gay men. Some of these churches may claim that they do not have any black gay men, and that is most likely false. Just because the church disagrees with homosexuality and speaks openly against it does not mean that black gay men are not a part of the membership. Indeed, many of the most prominent male members in some of the churches in this category are gay.
It is a common joke within the black community that the male choir director, lead tenor, or worship leader is gay. In my experience, this joke has more truth than anyone is willing to admit. Several of America’s most celebrated black male gospel singers are gay (not just Tonex, who was bold enough to “come out”), many of those involved in the music ministries at some of the most prominent black churches are gay, and even some preachers at some of the most prominent black churches are gay (I am referring to much more than Bishop Eddie Long). Before my critics get to the typical backlash, I am not speaking libelously against persons in the black church, for in every category I named, I am 100% sure that I know personally, or know of, gay men in each of those categories. And no, I am not going to “out” people to prove my broader point (I will deal with “outing” issues when I get to how the black gay community itself contributes to our condition).
These first-category black churches, those that outright reject homosexuality, are the primary founts for the angst that is experienced by black gay men. Not only do many Black gay men attend these churches as they grow up, learning to hate themselves when they come of age, but the black community at-large uses the teachings in these institutions to castrate, demean, and belittle black gay men. Unless, of course, they are willing to sing in the choir, lead the music ministry, and preach soul-stirring sermons, all while staying silent about who they are and working as hard as possible to hide even the faintest physical attribute that might give them away as a gay man.
For years, that was me, preaching, singing, and winning souls for Christ, all the while hating myself, internalizing my own damnation for my sexual attractions, and hiding as hard as I could. My single biggest problem with first-category black churches is that they never stop to ask themselves what the real-world results are if their theological positions are wrong. Black gay men, especially those who are “out of the closet,” live with the tension, and possibility, of being theologically wrong every day. I am constantly thoughtful about the potential consequences of being out of God’s will for my life, and even worse, leading others to a similar fate. But if these churches stopped to think about the damage they do to black gay men’s emotional and psychological health, the splintering of families that reject children for being gay, and the conundrum of teaching someone to hate themselves while telling them that God loves them, I am sure that they would feel the weight of their theological reasoning. I am not asking for all black churches to become welcoming to gay members, but I am asking them to be as conscious as I am about the weight of their position. In my view, churches should not take lightly positions that have led, and are leading, young people to attempt suicide or run away from home.
The second category of black churches, the tolerant churches, are less responsible for the condition of black gay men, but not that much less. These are the Black churches that pat themselves on the back for teaching that homosexuality is like any other sin; or that it is fine to be gay, but it is never okay to act on those desires; or that support gay civil rights, but plant themselves firmly on the separation between church and state on this issue. I hate to break up these church’s celebrations for their tolerant position, but being tolerated is only one step above being hated. Yes, tolerance is always superior to intolerance, but it is not much of a goal. If you were in the high school lunchroom, and were looking for a seat, you would sit at the table with the people that you know don’t like you, but won’t say anything, over the table with the people that will verbalize how much they don’t like you. Either way, you’re not going to have a very comfortable lunch.
The third-category black churches, those that celebrate homosexuality (“open and affirming churches”), are extremely rare. I was lucky enough to find one of these churches as I was deciding to “come out” in Atlanta, Georgia, Victory for the World Church led by Dr. Kenneth L. Samuel. The responsibility that these churches bear is the responsibility to make their lights shine brighter in our communities. We need more churches like Victory for the World Church in cities all over the United States, and we need for the ones that already exist to better engage other churches, the black gay community, and the black community at-large.
So, that’s a swift run through the experience and the responsibilities, but why does it all matter? It matters because much of the experience of being a black gay man in the black community is a derivative of the black church in some way. It also matters because just as the black church is in large part responsible for the negative reception that black gay men receive in the community, the church is also the potential arbiter of a peaceful solace for black gay men, if churches are willing to confront their theological positions. Finally, it matters because gay issues and black social issues overlap inescapably. The average gay couple in the United States raising children is not a middle-aged, white, male couple from the Northeast, it is a black lesbian couple living in the South. These couples are often living significantly below the poverty line, with limited education, and limited opportunities. Family, poverty, education, and opportunity are supposed to be the primary concerns of the black church, but many churches fail to embrace these couples because of their sexual attraction.
The Gay Community
The gay community’s responsibility for the condition of the black gay male is based on the community’s willful ignorance of our existence. The gay community is much more racially polarized than I would have ever imagined. I have a lot of gay friends of many different racial backgrounds, and I am lucky for that, but my cross-racial gay friendships are rare in the gay community at large. It may be said that I am expecting, perhaps unfairly, for racial communities that rarely interact otherwise to be able to come together over the experience of being gay. But fair or not, there are simply not enough gay people for the community to be segregated along racial lines. The gay community needs an intense conversation about how it can unite around the issues that we share, and empathize with each other on issues that we do not personally experience. Additionally, black gay men are almost wholly absent from the gay movement’s branding. Rarely do we see black gay men in the major corporate advertisements reaching out to the gay community, or the mainstream gay-rights movement's branding of itself. This needs to change.
The gay community benefits from the reality that there are gay people in every racial group, socioeconomic status, and area code, but the community’s failure to embrace all of this difference has made the movement weaker than it could be. Indeed, the division in the gay community is so poignant that there are two sets of Pride celebrations: Black Pride, a series of black gay celebrations across most major cities in the United States during the summer months, and Pride, the series of celebrations in most major cities that are primarily filled with non-black participants. The gay community at large must be willing to meet all of the members of the gay community where they are, in whatever condition they may find themselves. In essence, the gay community seems to have a racial outreach problem and it needs to be fixed.
This particular disassociation became amplified for me this past weekend as I attended the Annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. The event was a much-deserved celebration of the triumphs in the LGBT community over the past year, but as I looked out at the over 3,000 individuals in attendance, the chances of catching a glimpse of someone that looked like me was rare to say the least. Some of the dearth of black men at these type of celebrations is a result of a lack of targeting by major LGBT organizations, which sends the message that we can do this (“this” being the movement to secure all of our rights) without you, and some of the lack of black gay men in attendance is due to the black gay community’s own disconnect from the larger LGBT movement, an issue I will turn to now.
The Black Gay Community
Finally, black gay men, we are responsible for our own condition, perhaps more than anyone else. We attend the churches that disapprove of who we are, offering our time, talents, and tithes. We choose to hide, instead of challenge the existing norms. We find havens in our own community and back away from the broader communities that we belong to because they have shunned us. Perhaps what I am saying is that we are all screaming “ME, TOO” at the top of our lungs, but only in our own heads. We can and must do better.
What do we do now?
The black gay men that exist today are not the first, and we will not be the last. We are dreadfully ignorant of the black gay men that preceded us. As this country celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic speech in August, many black gay men, of a piece with the black community generally, continued its woeful ignorance of the fact that the 1963 March on Washington was organized by a black gay man, Bayard Rustin. Even more, we continue to fail to understand that the Civil Rights Movement as we know it would not have existed without Bayard Rustin. Historians report that it was Bayard Rustin that taught Dr. King Gandhi's non-violent resistance methods, which Rustin had been using decades before Dr. King. Indeed, Dr. King still owned a gun before he met Bayard Rustin. Mr. Rustin is just one example. Langston Hughes, the iconic and unforgettable Harlem Renaissance poet, was gay. Alvin Ailey, choreographer and founder of one of the most world-renowned African-American dance companies in the world, was gay. And James Baldwin, one of the most prolific writers of the 20th century, and author of one of the books that helped me to decide to come out years ago, Giovanni’s Room, was gay.
It has been stated by many scholars throughout time that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. But even worse for us, black gay men who do not know our history are doomed to thinking that we don’t have one.
Break the Silence
The hardest thing a black gay man will probably ever do is to come out to his closest friends and family, but that is exactly what I am asking for all of us to do. Our silence gives others license to ignore us. I am not suggesting that the decision to come out is an easy one to come to, nor am I suggesting that the act of coming out is easy, but I do know that living your life in the light, without concern for being caught, found out, or discovered, is a much better way to live. The day before my mother’s 50th birthday, I sat my entire immediate family down in the family living room, shaking uncontrollably and nervous beyond belief. Over the weeks beforehand, I had rehearsed in my head over and over again what I would say and how I would say it. But when I sat down in that room, my mind went completely blank. I started by telling everyone in the room that I loved them all very, very much and that there was something important I needed to tell them. I told them that I had thought long and hard about what I was about to say, and that it was not a realization that I came to lightly. Then, with tears streaming down my face, I said it, I said, “I’m gay.” There was a deeply uncomfortable silence that seemed to last an eternity, and then my dad got up, walked over to me, gave me a hug, and told me he loved me. I would love to tell every black gay man that their story will end as well as mine did, but that is unfortunately not true. I know that some of us risk losing family, friends, shelter, our own livelihoods, and those risks must be weighed fairly, but most of us are just scared, simply put. We are afraid to be who we are because the black community has told us we are worthless, sinful, beings; the gay community has neglected us; and we are ignorant of our own history.
So, on National Coming Out Day, I am here to join my voice with a growing chorus of openly gay black men and say “ME, TOO.”